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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Smeared with oil sands

According to Don Martin in today's National Post, the National Geographic's feature on Alberta's oil sands is PR hell, delivering a black eye from which the province will never recover.

I doubt it.

First, the National Geographic may still be widely read, but I doubt that it's anywhere near as influential as it was in the days before television and then the Internet. No single print publication can change public perception on its own. Moreover, the magazine may have portrayed the oil sands as an environmental wasteland, but there have never been any secrets about the megaprojects' disruption of the "natural" order in northern Alberta. Anyone who cared to be disgusted by the alteration of the landscape has undoubtedly already been so sickened.

Second, the magazine's expose comes at a time when economic concerns are clearly trumping environmental ones. Readers may not like to looks of the disturbed land, but now more than ever they realize how important such developments are to their well-being. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it best in his Feb. 23 interview with Larry Kudlow on CNBC:

First of all, let me be clear about the importation [by the U.S.] of oil sands oil. Regardless of what any legislature does, the United States will be importing this oil because there is absolutely no doubt that if you look at the supply-and-demand pattern into the future, the United States is going to need Canadian oil. It is the one secure, growing market-based source of energy that the United States has. There will be no choice but to import this oil…

…any policy [to stop the importation of oil sands oil] is completely unrealistic if you look at American needs for energy and where Americans can get the supply at a reasonable price… we will do what we can to reduce the carbon footprint. But there should be no illusion that economic reality will hit those environmental policies pretty hard when one goes to implement them.

UPDATE: You can read the National Geographic article for yourself here and view the accompanying slideshow.

Posted by Terry O'Neill on February 25, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink


What I should like to know is: What happens to the soil that is removed prior to reaching the deposits? It has to go somewhere. When mining operations in an area are complete, can it be put back and re-seeded?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-25 2:24:10 PM

The only people who read National Geographic are people who already hate the oil sands. They certainly aren't the kind of people who invest in such things and most of them aren't nearly impassioned enough to stop buying heavy petroleum based products.

Posted by: Pete | 2009-02-25 2:48:11 PM

Shane- That's how reclamation is done nowadays, in the oilpatch. It has to be as good, or better than it was before it was disturbed. It has to be assessed by a professional agrologist, and a government inspector before the oil company is allowed to stop paying rent to the owner/crown. There's an entire industry that's sprung up around reclamation. Much research has been done, and a lot of money has been circulated into Alberta's economy because of environmental regulations.

It doesn't hurt that the head of Alberta Environment is a member of the same association as the owners of all those environmental contracting companies. He's been overheard at association meetings, telling members they should be thankful he's made them rich, by passing stricter regulations.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-25 3:09:56 PM

I'm sorry but the National Geographic essay reveals that the Alberta tar sands are an international scandal. Denial just makes the denier look out of touch.

As for the belief that "economic concerns are clearly trumping environmental ones," well, the blogger seems to have missed a certain recent election in the United States. President Obama aims to address energy and economy together. The US happens to be the main market for tar sands oil, so while exports won't end overnight, don't count on them growing either.

The days of seeing everything in terms of jobs versus environment are over.

Posted by: Kenny | 2009-02-25 3:46:14 PM

The US happens to be the main market for tar sands oil, so while exports won't end overnight, don't count on them growing either.
Posted by: Kenny | 2009-02-25 3:46:14 PM

I'm sure the Chinese will buy whatever they can get. Diversification; don't rely on one buyer / market.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-02-25 4:05:08 PM


The Chinese better hurry up before California buys it all.

Obama is just grandstanding. He has no intention of restricting oilsands product. Why should he? It's no dirtier than any other cheap energy.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-25 5:02:58 PM

Well, Kenny, at least you're not sending us to the rack for heresy. "Denier" is a common word just now, usually bandied about by people preaching the end of the world to an increasingly indifferent populace.

From what I gather, dp actually works in the oilpatch, so he's probably in a better position to know these things than someone who takes one look at a photograph to a place he's never been and smacks his cheeks with Sideshow-Bob horror.

As for Obama, don't kid yourself. Very little substantive change will occur in U.S. policy. A spending package here, a new green initiative there, but Obama will have to face the economic reality that people care more about food in their bellies than polar bear habitat. America consumes an enormous amount of oil and for Obama to turn his back on its single largest, most economically stable, most politically reliable supplier, just to appease a few granola-eaters dressed in hemp sacks, would be like slitting his guts and then jumping into a tank full of sharks.

And anyone who doesn't believe that is out of touch.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-25 5:15:25 PM

National Geographic did the same thing on several areas on Vancouver Island after logging in the 80s. Even to an industrial forester like me the photos were fairly stark (I've seen worse). Within five years of the article the areas were already too "green" for re-shoots. National Geographic were invited back to do a follow-up series on the same landscapes but refused to do so as the reforestation that has grown up since then looks like a natural even-aged forest to the untrained eye. Areas that I am very familiar with which were headlined on the front page of the Vancouver Sun in the early seventies as "Logging Destruction on Northern Vancouver Island" have now regrown to be economically harvestable again. Hysteria sells magazines but reality is boring.

Having worked in Northern Alberta during my student summers, I would expect those strip mining reclamations would come back fairly rapidly, particularly in Aspen.

The Oil Sands producers should be happy that they are not trying to sell to the Europeans as Greenpeace has them lapping up almost anything they say. When one buys a German car he supports Greenpeace as their auto workers union fund Greenpeace through payroll deduction.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-02-25 5:43:24 PM

...I just 'read' National Geographic for the pictures of African tribe women.

Posted by: tomax7 | 2009-02-25 5:50:18 PM

...I would expect those strip mining reclamations would come back fairly rapidly, particularly in Aspen - Exactly. You know how ugly an unfinished house looks? And then look at the difference the last month of work makes.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-25 5:54:58 PM

From what I've seen over the last 30 years, the oilpatch has cleaned up it's operation much better than any other industry. Forestry is still leaving some scary messes behind. Agriculture gets a free ride on environmental issues, and manufacturing is still pumping smog into the air.

In my town, the snow removal crews dump the salt/sand mixture from city streets into a huge pile. This year it's a bigger pile than usual. It melts into a small creek, that flows directly into the South Saskatchewan River. It contains salt, road tar, and all the oils that drip from vehicles. If an oil company had any more than a few litres of similar material, it would be required to dispose of it in an approved facility, at great expense.

Farmers and ranchers regularly allow livestock to have direct access to our rivers. They allow chemicals and fertilizer to flow, unhindered, into our ground water. The sheer volumes of these materials makes the few oil spills look pretty miniscule. Crude oil is hardly toxic, anyway. It comes from organic sources, and any spill I've ever seen did very little damage. What really does damage is salt water from underground sources(it tends to be mixed with most of Alberta's conventional reserves).

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-25 6:00:19 PM

Having just seen the actual slides from the article it does not seem nearly as fear mongering as it could have been. I actually liked the pictures. The most significant environmental aspect of those operations appears to be their water management. Most everything else could be mitigated with relative ease.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-02-25 6:50:58 PM

I am more than willing to trade the use of this land for the next 100 years in return for the trillions of dollars of wealth that will be produced by the extraction and processing of the heavy oil.

Posted by: Tom | 2009-02-26 11:57:09 AM

Tom- Once they put the oilsands into high gear, they won't last more than 50 years. Once they're done, Ft. McMurray can go back to being a meaningless wasteland, like it has been for thousands of years.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-26 12:37:28 PM

Obama lies.

Posted by: epsilon | 2009-03-02 8:54:34 PM

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